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Sheneen McClain (center) at the Saturday protest in Aurora over the death of her son Elijah McClain. Photo by Robert Sanchez
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‘Every voice, every letter, mattered’

Thousands of Americans wrote Gov. Jared Polis demanding justice for Elijah McClain. A year later, the letter writers react to the indictments handed down last week.

They wrote at kitchen tables and at family room couches and at desks in home offices last year. They wrote from their childhood bedrooms and during their lunch breaks at work. They wrote with pens and pencils. Some wrote on their computers. Thousands of letters; hundreds of thousands of words—each asking Colorado Governor Jared Polis that Elijah McClain finally receive justice.

This week, they celebrated.

“I let out a whoop when I saw the news come across my computer screen,” says Susan Champlin, a writer from New York. On Thursday, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced that a grand jury indicted two Aurora police officers, a former officer, and two Aurora Fire Department paramedics in McClain’s 2019 death.

“This feels amazing,” says Azure Dill, a teenager who lives in Virginia and wrote to Polis last year from her then-home in Florida. “Maybe we’ve all shown that every person can make a difference, if they want to.”

“The indictments brought tears to my eyes,” says Greta Blau, an assistant probate court clerk from Connecticut. She wrote Polis and talked about how photos of McClain now haunted her. “But I still can’t help but wonder why it took two years to get here.”

(Read more: The Enduring Legacy of Elijah McClain’s Tragic Death)

Blau, Champlin, and Dill were just three writers of nearly 8,500 letters and postcards sent from outside Colorado that Polis received last year amid nationwide protests over the country’s ongoing epidemic of police brutality against Black men and women. Letter writers nationwide demanded accountability for McClain’s death: firings, charges, convictions. Some took just a few minutes to write their letters. Others took nearly a week. They came from all walks of life, from every state in America.

In most cases, the letters were never read by Polis or his staff. But, still, they piled up. “I hope they were impossible to ignore,” Blau says. The letters were put into boxes last year, and the boxes were eventually sorted and archived by the History Colorado Center.

Some of the writers feel their collective voice—from Hawaii to Maine, from South Dakota to Mississippi—might have pushed Colorado toward action. Champlin thinks about those letters arriving at the state Capitol last year: “The steady drumbeat of people crying out for justice. Everything everyone did on so many fronts. How many voices were being raised? Every voice, every letter, mattered.”

“This gives me hope,” says Arjun Kaicker, an architect who wrote his letter last year from his home in Atlanta. “Not just this case, but in general. Maybe there’s hope that other things can change.”

Dill hand-wrote her four-page letter last year with her favorite light blue ink pen, neatly aligning her sentences on blank, white paper with a ruler and a pencil.

… Justice needs to be served. Lives need to be affirmed.
Change the way things are happening. Be fair. Arrest the
men that killed Elijah McClain.

Dill says she was happy about the indictments, as was her mother. Still, they said, a young man died two years ago and nothing can be done to change that.

But maybe, Azure says, the letters can teach us a lesson. “We showed [McClain’s] family that people really care,” the teenager says. “Maybe we’ve shown that people can make a difference. Just one person, and maybe that person becomes more people. It takes that first person, though. One person can do that.”

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